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Sunday, December 10, 2017

Week 13 (from the Book): To Publicize Miracles with Pride and Humility

The starling is saying, "Their seed shall be known among the nations, and their offspring among the peoples; all who see them shall acknowledge them, that they are the seed that G-d has blessed." (Isaiah 61:9)

Akavia the son of Mahalalel would say: Reflect upon three things and you will not come to the hands of transgression. Know from where you came, where you are going, and before whom you are destined to give a judgment and accounting. From where you came--from a putrid drop; where you are going--to a place of dust, maggots and worms; and before whom you are destined to give a judgment and accounting--before the supreme King of Kings, the Holy One, blessed be He.

Yesod shebeGevurah (foundation and firmness within the context of discipline and judgment)

We now come to the thirteenth week, which includes the beginning of Chanukah, when in Perek Shirah the starling declares that "Their seeds will be known among the nations and their offspring among the people: all who see them will recognize that they are the seed that Hashem blessed" (Isaiah 61:9). During this week, it is actually a mitzvah to publicize the miracles of Chanukah to the rest of the world, so that all may recognize the blessings bestowed on the Jewish people during the times of the Greeks. This mitzvah in Hebrew is called pirsumei nissa, to publicize the miracle.

The starling’s song’s focus on the seed of the Jewish people appears to be an important reference to the kohanim, the priestly class, whose lineage, unlike most of Judaism, is actually determined by the physical male seed. There are even DNA tests available to check for a “kohen gene,” to know with almost complete certainty if someone is or is not a direct descendant of Aaron, the first kohen. The Maccabees were kohanim, and their miraculous actions during the days of Chanukah made the seed of Aaron known among the nations. They ensured that Aaron’s offspring would be recognized as the seed Hashem blessed.

Chanukah also comes from the word chinuch, which means education. The starling also teaches us that just as each of us is a “seed,” planted, nurtured and blessed by our parents, teachers, and most importantly, by G-d, so too must we ensure that the same or better is done for our children and students. It is ultimately through education that we will defeat the forces of darkness and assimilation.

The number thirteen represents the thirteen attributes of G-d’s mercy, as well as the thirteen principles used in studying and interpreting the Torah. Thirteen is also the gematria of the Hebrew word echad, one, as well as ahavah, love. It is also a reference to the Tribe of Levi, which is the “thirteenth tribe,” when counted together with the other twelve. As kohanim, the Maccabees come from the Tribe of Levi. Their highly improbable victory over the Greeks was a revelation of Hashem’s great mercy and love, as well as of His oneness, and absolute power over creation.

In Pirkei Avot, Akavia the son of Mahalalel teaches: "Reflect upon three things and you will not come to sin: know from where you came, to where you are going, and to Whom, in the future, you are to provide an accounting. From where did you come? From a putrid drop. To where you are going? To a place of dust, maggots and worms. To Whom will you provide an accounting? To the King of kings, the Holy One, Blessed be He." (III: 1) It is interesting to note that this lesson in Pirkei Avot also speaks of the human seed, although in a much less flattering way.

Interestingly, there is quite a strong connection between the words of Akavia and Chanukah. Chanukah celebrates our victory against Hellenistic culture and humanism, which valued mankind, and in particular, the human body above all else. Akavia claims that the human being, or at least the body, comes from a putrid drop, and that its fate is to be consumed by worms. The lowly human being is then judged by G-d Himself. Akavia demonstrates to us that our life should be focused on G-d, not on man.

The thoughts of Akavia help us understand just how merciful G-d is towards His people. Despite our lowly past and lowly future, we nevertheless have a strong and direct relationship with the King of kings, just like children have with their Father. We have a spark of G-d within us, and when He punishes us, it is for our own good. Chassidism teaches us that we have no idea just how precious the body is to G-d, like the seed described in the song of the starling.

The sefirah combination for this week results in yesod shebegevurah. This could not be more appropriate: yesod means foundation, and it is this week that we celebrate Chanukah, when the Jewish people, through its deep connection to its religious foundation, as well as courage and strength, was able to resist the forced assimilationist policies of the Greeks.

Regarding self-improvement, we see from the song of the starling that we must not only publicize the miracles that we merit to witness, but also be aware that everything comes from G-d, our Creator, who is ultimately responsible for everyone and everything.
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